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Archaeologist explains remains of Grassmere Plantation slave workers

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Feb 25, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Local bio-archaeologist Shannon Hodge gave a presentation Thursday covering the discovery of African-American remains at the Grassmere Plantation, a site currently known as the Nashville Zoo. 

The presentation was part of events planned to highlight Black History Month, sponsored by the Wilson County Black History Committee, at Mt. Juliet Public Library. Hodge is a member of the committee.

Many of the remains found were infants and children, with only two being between the ages of 35 and 50 when they died, and not one set of remains was found to be older than 50 years old at the time of death. Among those found, there were five adult men, four adult women and 11 infants and children. 

The unmarked cemetery was first discovered in 1989 during an archeological survey conducted by students at Vanderbilt University. In 1997 when the Nashville Zoo relocated, the cemetery was known and avoided by the winding path to the entrance of the zoo. 

The project of excavating the remains was later taken on by a number of organizations, including Hodge and a group of students at Middle Tennessee State University. The Nashville Zoo helped with the project’s funding.

The historic Grassmere home still stands at the Nashville Zoo, surrounded by the family cemetery, slave cabins and now this replicated cemetery containing remains of plantation slave workers. 

“The zoo has had amazing growth,” Hodge said. “They had not intended to ever disturb the cemetery but it became apparent that they had to do it in order to expand.”

Grassmere was first established with a 1786 land grant during the Revolutionary War to a man named Simpson, who never actually lived at the property. Simpson sold the plantation to Michael and Elizabeth Dunn in 1810. 

The Dunn family built the house that still stands today. The property would go on to be family owned by the Dunn, Shute and Croft families until it was acquired by Metro Nashville in 1985.

“By the 1960s the [Croft] sisters were the only ones who were left, and they made an agreement with Nashville Metro that if Metro would pay their taxes and keep up the property that upon the death of the last sister, the property would become the property of Metro Nashville,” Hodge said.

All of the families owned slaves who worked on the property, averaging about 33 slaves per census. The unmarked cemetery contained 20 graves with 19 sets of remains. Hodge said just because no remains were found does not mean there were not remains in it at one time. 

The remains were found in coffins, an unusual luxury for slaves at the time. There were also buttons and grommets found, meaning the people were buried with their clothes on. Some blue seed beads were also found near the collarbones of some of the younger remains, meaning they may have been sown on to clothing or on a necklace. These beads are common in historic African burial practices, and symbolized the crossing of a body of water after death. 

A study of some of the teeth excavated from the site revealed a low frequency of 

cavities of large size. The people were probably eating a lot of cornbread and beans, lots of calories but little nutrition. 

“They were well fed, but they also worked very hard,” Hodge said.  

One of the graves contained the remains of an adult female and 22-week-old fetus. 

“This was found in the grave with the mother. It’s not associated with childbirth, not associated with stillbirth. A pregnant mother died is what happened here,” Hodge said.

Others bore signs of infection, osteoarthritis, bone fractures, gout and other afflictions and injuries. 

One case study Hodge presented, burial 13, was a young man, 17-21 years old, who suffered from chronic kidney disease, including things like misshaped bones, juvenile gout and eventually an aneurysm in the brain that was most likely the cause of death. 

Unlike some plantations at the time, the slave quarters were not hidden on Grassmere Plantation, but actually out in the open for all to see. 

“This is, look how much money I have, look at my property. Slave homes were right in the main driveway so everyone coming could see,” Hodge said. “It’s just like parking your Cadillac in the driveway instead of putting it in the garage.” 

DNA tests of three sets of remains showed one of definite African descent, one of European or northern African descent, and one inconclusive result. Hodge still has samples from all 19 sets of remains and hopes to eventually get them all tested. 

After the study, the remains were placed back in the ground in the same layout of the original cemetery.

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